Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | September 12, 2012

India: Time for the main attractions

Monument to love: You can’t come to India and not see the Taj Mahal

So now I’ve seen the big one – the tomb everyone comes to India to see. Yes, I’ve visited the Taj Mahal, the most popular tourist attraction in the country. Between feedback from others: ‘It’s just a white building,’ to, ‘I could have spent hours in there,’ my reaction lies in between. It’s beautiful yes, but so are many other places in India.

I don’t have much luck with sunrises, but I get up at 5.30am anyway. At 6am on a Monday morning the Mughal mausoleum is quite peaceful and the pearly light softly caresses the Rajesthani marble, even if I don’t get the vivid colours you get in drier weather.

The 16th-century Agra Fort is impressive too. The small part the public are allowed to meander around features grand gateways, palaces and lots of the marble inlay that is found at the Taj Mahal. From the fort you can see the Taj a couple of km away by the Yamuna River.

Emperor Aurangzeb imprisoned his father in Khas Mahal, the white marble octagonal tower and palace for eight years until he died. Shah Jahan had wonderful views of the Taj Mahal from his balcony, which was nice for him seeing as it was he who built it for his third wife (and mother of 14 children who died in childbirth aged 38) Mumtaz Mahal. Once dead, he was buried there along with his spouse.

‘She was very pretty,’ said my guide.

‘He must have cared for her very much,’ I replied.

‘She gave him the children the first two wives didn’t,’ added my guide. ‘And she was very pretty.’

The Taj Mahal was Unesco-listed as a World Heritage Site in 1983, and it costs US$13 for a foreigner to get in. It’s probably the most expensive monument to visit in India, which is fine if the money goes into maintenance and not into some official’s Swiss bank account. With a lot of the monuments you really wonder where the entry fees go.

In Agra I was fortunate enough stay at The Gateway Hotel, which has views of the Taj from its rooms at the front. The other side has views of the gardens and pool. The Gateway is very comfortable and relatively low key, but it has wonderful Mughal food and offers services in the lobby such as a tattooist and an astrologer. (I’m going to make lots of money between 60 and 83, travel a lot and have good health.) It’s also popular with Westerners who want to have an Indian-style wedding. Procession with elephants can be arranged.

While there I travelled 40km west of Agra to visit the fortified ancient city of Fatehpur Sikri, which was the Moghul capital between 1571 and 1585. The city itself includes palaces for three wives and a number of pavilions. Emperor Akbar built the city here after consulting a Sufi saint in Sikri village who predicted the birth of a royal heir. The site includes a huge and atmospheric mosque full of locals just hanging out, and a marble tomb for the saint where childless women still tie strings to the jali (carved marble screens).

Spice market in Delhi's Old City: No shortage of flavorNow I’m in Delhi, a city about which most people have little good to say. Old Delhi is chaotic small lanes with tourist attractions such as the Jama Masjid (India’s largest mosque, with attractive Mughal architecture) and the Red Fort. The mosque is free to enter unless you are carrying a camera, and the it costs 300 rupees.

I enjoyed the spice market, with the vibrant chillis and piles of nuts and the earthy ochre of ground roots such as turmeric. A handkerchief comes in handy here as the oils from the chillis can irritate the nose.

With my stomach protesting its health, I consumed great kulfi (nutty, spiced Indian ice cream) Ishwar Chaat, no 31 on Paranthe Wali Gali.  And looking up, there are some wonderful, if crumbly buildings. South Delhi is very different being much more modern – some streets have trees and good paving, with no potholes or cows to be seen. Then you turn a corner and there is a shack with a ox next to it …

I am staying in a fairly upmarket area with lots of grand houses behind elaborate gates, but a short walk away there is a huge overpass over a smelly river with pigs running around eating rubbish. In another direction there it’s back to rural India with tiny alleyways, handcarts and goats in the road.

‘Hmmm, bit bored sitting here. Please buy something to stop me falling asleep’

Even Connaught Place, the colonnaded heart of New Delhi that was built between 1929 and 1933 and it was one of the top heritage areas of the city, is a place of contrasts. Some parts of the Neo-Classical complex are in good shape, other parts not so much.  Had lunch with a group of people who needed a break from sometimes oily Indian cooking, and we went to an Indian/Chinese/Thai place called Berco’s with good red Thai curry. Modern inside, the road outside is like a Third World building site – not good for business in general, but fine for us as we easily got a table.

After lunch we visited Agrasen ki Baoli (also known as Agar Sain ki Baoli or Ugrasen ki Baoli), a 60-meter long and 15-meter wide step well built by the Mughals on Hailey Road near Connaught Place. It was a surprise to find a site like this so close to the commercial center, but I think Delhi is one of those places that is full of surprises.

One thing I like about Delhi is the internet – it works! I published my last post a week ago and only saw today that it hadn’t been published at all. Wretched computers. A new friend is trying to talk me into buying a tablet with bluetooth and wireless headphones and various bits of technology I didn’t know existed. I am crunching dinosaur bones here.

Willy nilly chilli: A treat for the eyes, but protect those mucous membranes

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